I've reviewed R.O.T.O.R. more than once for various books and websites, but this time I'm going to lay it out chronologically. That way anybody who hasn't seen it can pretend they're one of the lucky ones.
Country: USA | Runtime: 90m | Director: Cullen Blaine
Starring: Richard Gesswein, Jayne Smith, Margaret Trigg, Stan Moore, James Cole
R.O.T.O.R. begins with a lengthy title sequence followed by a scroll that gets us up to speed (and provides the only mention, and evidence, that this takes place in the future). Nothing unusual about that. Then we cut to exposition delivered through a car radio. Then we have a short flash-forward. Then the retrospective voiceover begins. After that the actual movie nearly manages to start, but at the last moment is hijacked by country and western. After the musical interlude we finally see footage in context, but it’s a man feeding a horse. Accompanied by more voiceover. At this point it feels like we might be further away from something relevant happening than we were 15 minutes earlier. But then, just as it seems the movie must be ending, something incredible happens: the picture and the dialogue marry up, and in a way that isn't confusing, teasing or expositioning us. It seems to be leading somewhere.
“Mankind is bent on genocide. I'll show you the only remedy.”
A burst of activity follows as we get to know our protagonist, Captain Barrett Coldyron, are given some of the more immediate setup, and meet much of the supporting cast. Coldyron, a police robotics expert, is quitting in a huff after being told he has only 90 days to deliver R.O.T.O.R., a prototype android traffic cop not scheduled for completion for another 4, 25 or 50 years, depending on which scene you go by. But it's as if this flurry of pertinence has exhausted the movie, and it soon reverts to scenes that serve no purpose. We spend five minutes watching a Native American lothario hit on a police woman in a sequence that has nothing to do with anything, and features characters we never see again. Then we spend even longer with Coldyron as he foils a robbery that has nothing to do with anything, and features characters we never see again, and so on. Finally, at the halfway mark, R.O.T.O.R. is finally introduced. Sort of.
“I think you're bad or something, a white supremmist.”
Eschewing the traditional dramatic reveal, the filmmakers have R.O.T.O.R. enter the movie without buildup, or even warning, by stumbling through some chairs and pushing someone. It's a bit of an anticlimax to be honest. Apparently R.O.T.O.R.'s even earlier than early deployment is an accident caused by Coldyron's deputy Houghtaling (Moore), and robot assistant Willard. This seems like a good opportunity to mention that, without exception, the supporting cast is fantastic, but particular praise needs piling on Willard. Whoever conceived of his sullenly camp demeanour is a genius of characterisation, but they had a unique interpretation of the movie's tone if they thought it was suitable. He grumbles when given a task, expresses ominous doom when asked to make a prediction, and at one point tries to resign in order to avoid the fallout from R.O.T.O.R.'s release.
- “That's about as far as you're going to stick it, Earl. You may be so crooked you got to screw your hat on, but you're not pulling my strings.”
- “No Coldyron, I'm pulling your plug.”
We'll skip over why a robot that wont to be delivered for 4, 25 or 50 years already has its own locker, uniform, weapons and motorcycle, the important thing is that it's somehow out on the streets without anyone in the department being aware. (It still seems strange movies that behave like this are available on blu-ray nowadays. Somehow these shenanigans make more sense when you're watching a VHS.) After murdering a passing speeder, R.O.T.O.R. takes exception to the poor guy's girlfriend driving off and pursues her. For days. This prompts Coldyron to enlist the help of Dr Steele, the woman who designed R.O.T.O.R.'s chassis and who, in spite of being his primary collaborator on a project that's been running for years, he's never met or spoken to before.
“Look at you, you look like you got both eyes coming out of the same hole.”
It's around this time we're introduced to R.O.T.O.R.'s 'sensor recall' function, a visual aid that allows him to see through time. He only has to look at a spot in order to see anything that has previously happened there, as if spooling backwards through CCTV footage. It seems this one device (which plays hardly any role in proceedings) is the single most incredible invention in mankind's history, and would all but eliminate crime at a stroke without the need for costly, homicidal robots. It's never mentioned out loud. At least 12 hours pass between the arrival of Dr Steele and the final attempt to stop R.O.T.O.R., during which time he has continued his pursuit of the woman he took against, who is apparently named Sony and Sonya (Trigg).
“To combat pure will you'll have to use pure illogic.”
With the combined genius of Coldyron and Steele, it seems reasonable to expect something pretty clever as a means of stopping R.O.T.O.R. Instead, Coldyron lassos him and he explodes for some reason. (Of course. That was the reason for the country and western at the start; it was foreshadowing Coldyron's prowess as a frontiersman. I love how this movie works.) That's the end for R.O.T.O.R., but we do get a coda for Coldyron when his boss murders his stand-in for some reason, and for Steele when it’s intimated she will be turned into a cyborg for the sequel.
“You fire me and I'll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin, brother.”
Sadly R.O.T.O.R. was the only feature directed by Cullen Blaine, a successful storyboard artist and animator for over 30 years. It's generally assumed to be a RoboCop rip-off, but with their release dates falling only three months apart, and R.O.T.O.R.'s promotional artwork so inexplicably determined to rip-off Mad Max, I wonder if there's more to this story. Whatever. This is a masterpiece full of lovely touches. Dr Steele designed R.O.T.O.R.'s chassis, in other words body, so she's played by a powerlifter who automatically takes on the role of the muscle even though she's a leading scientist. Coldyron designed the brain, so he's a genius prone to thinking things through to the nth degree. That essentially makes R.O.T.O.R. meta!